Professor receives grants to examine children's temperament

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Cynthia Stifter, professor of human development and family studies in the College of Health and Human Development at Penn State, has received two grants, totaling nearly $2 million to investigate the relationship between children's temperament and their risk of becoming obese as well as the relationship between children's temperament and their abilities to experience joy.

In the first grant, Stifter received $1.5 million from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. The grant will enable her to examine the relationships between preschool children's temperament, their reactions to parents use of food to control or reward behavior and children’s weight outcomes.

"Obesity in childhood has been increasing at an alarming rate," said Stifter. "For children ages 2-5 years, the prevalence of overweight children has almost tripled over the last three decades. As young children develop the ability to regulate their behavior, parents begin to socialize children to rules and standards of behaving. In some instances, parents may turn to instrumental feeding, or the use of food to control or reward behavior. The health outcomes of this feeding practice are expected to be different based on the child’s temperamental style and/or their self-regulatory ability."

Stifter plans to assess temperamental reactivity and self-regulation of preschool children and parenting practices using multiple methods, including laboratory visits by the children and parents, parent reports, and objective measurements.

In the second grant--awarded by the John Templeton Foundation in the amount of $483,000--Stifter will examine how child temperament and parenting contribute to children's abilities to experience joy.

"Joy is cultivated and purposeful," said Stifter. "The potential to experience this emotional state likely develops over time and within the parent-child relationship. Parents socialize children early on to internalize the values of the family and the larger culture. The focus of their socialization efforts typically focuses on the regulation of negative emotions. Parents, however, are arbiters of their child's positive emotions including joy and interest. Moreover, children are active participants in this process through their dispositional responses, or temperament."

Specifically, Stifter will examine how child temperament and parenting affect children's use of positive affect to effectively regulate distress. In addition, she will examine children’s exploration of novelty (curiosity), which is associated with positive affect. She will follow a sample of children varying in temperament. The children will participate in several tasks designed to assess their positive emotions and their curiosity. Stifter also will observe parents' encouragement of these character strengths.

"Our long-term aims are to bring focus to positive emotions in development and to inform preventative interventions that highlight the role of parents/caregivers in the development of the potential for joy," said Stifter.

Last Updated October 21, 2013